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Wilderness Ethics
Wilderness Ethics


The first and probably most widely accepted wilderness ethical principle is "Leave No Trace."  Leave No Trace means exactly what you would expect: After you leave, it should look like you were never there.  There are a few guidelines you can follow to adhere to Leave No Trace principles:


1. Plan ahead and prepare

A little preparation goes a long way in the backcountry. Do your research and make sure you have what you need - including the knowledge - for a safe and enjoyable trip. This site will help.


2. Travel and camp in durable places

Simply walking on pristine ground or camping in an untouched area can cause major damage to plants, animals, and the ecosystem. Stay on worn trails where they exist and camp in areas that are well worn or durable, so that you can avoid causing erosion that can have consequences for wildlife.


3. Dispose of waste properly

If you pack it in, pack it out. Don't leave garbage that may be harmful to wildlife and unsightly to other visitors to the area. Bury human waste away from trails and water sources.


4. If it was already there, leave it

With few exceptions, you should leave what you find.


5. Be smart about campfires

Be conscientious about fires. Every year, thousands of acres of forest burn because of irresponsible and negligent tourists. Don't be one of them. When you build a fire, take care to minimize the impact of that fire on the ecosystem and never bring wood from outside the immediate area - it can carry insects that kill local trees.


6. Have respect for wildlife

Never feed or leave food available for wild animals. Feeding animals can inhibit that animal’s natural ability to find food and lead to human-wildlife conflicts. If you see a wild animal, observe it from a distance and stay out of its way. Know that wildlife is unpredictable and people get hurt and killed by wild animals every year.


7. Be considerate

Wild places are for everyone to enjoy. Noise travels, especially in the mountains, so keep it to a minimum. Always be considerate of others; it's a good rule for life.

Plan Ahead


Take a look at the planning section for itineraries, mapping options, and checklists.


Here are some tips that will help you plan your first backpacking trips (see REI’s “Backpacking Tips for Beginners”):


1. Go with someone who has experience

If you are new to camping and backpacking, consider going with someone who has more experience at first. Planning a backcountry trip and traveling with an experienced person is the best way to gain skills and stay safe. Group trips, especially for beginners, are the most fun.


2. Be smart about your destination

Try something local first, and keep it short and on trails. If you aren’t used to carrying a heavy pack and doing the work required to be in the backcountry, a strenuous environment will add undue stress to your trip.


3. Distance

For your first time, try one night in the backcountry with a round trip of 5-10 miles. People are surprised at how difficult it can be to carry a loaded backpack for several miles at a time. So, for your initial experience you should plan to hike a few miles, set up camp for the night, and hike the same trail back to your car the following day. Trust us, you will learn a lot in this initial trip but you won’t be burdened by mistakes or at risk of injury if you are only out for one night.


4. Use guidebooks and local resources

Almost every wilderness destination has been written about in guidebooks, websites, blogs, magazines, and books. These resources are often invaluable for the backpacker preparing for a trip to that location. You should ALWAYS call ahead to the local authorities or park rangers to make sure you have everything you need for the trip and that there are no dangers or closures at your destination. Remember that permits and reservations are often required for backcountry travel and camping.


5. Gear planning

Choosing the right gear, and making sure you have all the gear you need without bringing excess, is one of the most challenging and fun aspects of wilderness travel. No matter what, you need to have the Ten Essentials with you on every trip. Your destination – especially the climate and conditions – will dictate much of the gear you need to bring. See the gear section for a more detailed description of gear selection, preparation, and packing.


6. Conditions and time of year

Winter camping and backpacking is not for beginners. For your first trip, make sure the conditions will not cause you stress. Don’t go when rain or storms are expected, or when it is going to be very hot or very cold. Try a fall or spring trip where the weather is expected to be mild during the day and cooler at night. As you become more experienced, you will find that backpacking in almost any conditions is possible, but you may decide that the extremes are not for you. Keep in mind that hypothermia and heat sicknesses are possible regardless of the temperature. See Emergencies in the Backcountry for more information.


7. Relax!

This may seem like a lot of information, but do not be overwhelmed. Backpacking is fun and you will soon find that wilderness travel (and even the planning) is a relaxing and rehabilitating experience. Take it one step at a time, talk with someone who has experience, and have fun.

Plan Ahead


There are four main areas of preparation you should consider:

   1.  What you need to bring

   2.  What you need to know

   3.  What you need to do

   4.  What if’s


1. What you need to bring

Backpacking requires you to attain and organize gear, clothing, and food. We have included sections on each of these items. Checking, double-checking, and triple-checking is at least a good idea if not a requirement for your first backpacking trip.


2. What you need to know

While you don’t need to be a survival expert to go backpacking, you should have a decent understanding of wilderness survival principles before your first backpacking trip. In addition, you will need to learn some essential skills for travelling in the wilderness. See the Skills section below for more details.


3. What you need to do

In addition to bringing the right gear, clothing, and food, and learning the right skills for your trip, there are several things you will need to do before leaving. This includes making an itinerary, checking conditions, acquiring permits and paying fees, physically preparing for your trip, and testing out your gear.


Making an itinerary – see the itinerary examples and templates on the Plan page. Your itinerary should include the names of everyone in your group, your time of departure, any medical conditions anyone in the group may have, your vehicle’s make, model, and plate number, your route in detail (including where you will be camping each night), and your final destination including a range of time you expect to return. You should leave a copy of the itinerary in your vehicle, as well as giving it to a responsible person who will call the authorities if you do not return within the time frame designated on the itinerary.


Checking conditions – You need to be sure that your vehicle is equipped for the road conditions expected between you and your destination. Call ahead to get this information. You also need to call ahead to learn about the trail conditions. Regardless of weather, certain areas may be impassable during certain times of year due to a variety of circumstances. You don’t want to get there and realize you can’t take the route you planned because the trail is washed out or under maintenance. Of course, you need to keep a close eye on the weather forecast at your destination. If the weather does not look good, consider postponing your trip until conditions are favorable. Again, ALWAYS call ahead to make sure you are prepared for the expected conditions.


Acquiring permits and paying fees – Many wilderness areas and parks require visitors to acquire permits and/or fees before travelling in the area. These may include parking passes, trailhead registrations, backcountry or wilderness permits, campground reservations, and entrance fees. Call ahead to determine what permits or fees apply to you and your trip. Do this early as some parks have a limited number of spots available and the longer you wait, the more likely it will be that you won’t be able to get a spot.


Physical preparation – Make no mistake; backpacking is a physical activity. You will be walking several miles over unfamiliar and often challenging terrain, carrying weight that you are not used to carrying. In addition, you will have to set up your camp site, cook your food, filter water, organize your gear, and clean up and pack everything in and out. Activities that are one-step, simple processes at home, such as getting a drink of water, require more work when in the backcountry. This comes as a shock to many people, so you will need to make sure you are prepared physically for the challenges of backpacking.


You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to do this, but you will benefit from being in shape. If you are fatigued on the trail, you will also be fatigued mentally and therefore more likely to make careless decisions that may lead to dangerous situations for you or someone else. For more information on training for backpacking, check out our article: Physical Fitness and Backpacking: The Why, How, and What of Training for Your Next Trip


Don’t let your first backpacking trip be your first experience hiking several miles carrying weight. This is something you should do beforehand in a controlled, safe environment. Consult with your physician to make sure you are healthy enough for this type of activity.


Testing out your gear – Make sure you understand how to use and maintain your gear. Pack your bag, try it on, make sure it fits, then hike with it several times before your trip. You can bring all the right gear with you, but if you don’t know how to use it or properly maintain it, it won’t do you any good and you could end up in a situation for which you are truly unprepared.


4. "What if’s"

What if you get injured? What if you get lost? What if you decide this isn’t for you? What if you have an emergency?


There are many “what if’s” that you should consider before going backpacking. Talking to someone more experienced will shed light on many of these considerations, but you should do your research and consider the worst-case scenarios that you might encounter. Decide how you would deal with each of these situations and make sure everyone in your group understands. Always carry some extra cash, your medical information, and a charged phone for emergencies.


The Ten Essentials

These are the bare minimum items you should take with you on any and every backcountry adventure. The Ten Essentials are basic survival items needed to respond to emergencies, stay safe, and survive in the backcountry. For virtually all trips, you will want to carry additional items not included in the Ten Essentials. However, this decades-old list has been crafted and revised to prepare you for most situations encountered in the backcountry.


Some travellers will carry the Ten Essentials with them almost everywhere they go; others store these items in a bag in their car. Personally, we choose to carry the Ten Essentials on any hike, no matter the distance. Mark carries the Ten Essentials in his hunting bag.


It might seem silly, but if you are caught in a storm or break an ankle on even a short local hike, you will be happy to have these items with you. They can and will save your life. Whatever you choose to do with this list, you should always have these items with you, and know how to properly use them, when backpacking.


Note: We have provided two lists here; the Ten Essentials most experienced backpackers carry, and the “Classic” Ten Essentials used in older mountaineering activities. Both lists work well, but we feel that the more modern Ten Essentials (the first list below) is appropriate for most backpackers.


The Ten Essentials:


1. Navigation

Navigation equipment includes, at minimum, a map on waterproof paper or in a protective case, and a compass. You must know how to use these items for backcountry travel. You may also choose to include a GPS (global positioning system) receiver and an altimeter.


2. Sun Protection

Sun protection includes sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses.


3. Insulation

Insulation means carrying or wearing a jacket, vest, pants, gloves, and hat (see the clothing section of our gear lists in the Plan page).


4. Illumination

Don’t get caught without light. Carry a flashlight or headlamp with extra batteries.


5. First-Aid Supplies

See the first-aid kit checklist from REI on our Plan page.


6. Fire

Fire can and does save lives in the wilderness. Carry waterproof matches (or matches in a waterproof container) and/or a lighter. Also carry a fire starter to get a fire going quickly in emergencies or wet conditions.


7. Repair Kit and Tools

Carry a knife or a Multitool, as well as a small/compact roll of duct tape – these items are indispensible when you know how to use them. Also have repair kits for your stove, sleeping pad/mattress, and tent.


8. Nutrition

Always carry an extra day’s supply of food. Even on a day hike, carry some meals with a high caloric density.


9. Hydration

You need water to survive. Period. Make sure you are prepared by carrying water bottles and/or hydration reservoirs (we carry both), and water filter or treatment system (see the corresponding Skills section).


10. Emergency Shelter

Even if you have a tent with you, carry a backup plan. Weird things happen, not the least of which can be you becoming separated from your tent or your tent failing. Emergency shelters can be as simple as a lightweight tarp and some rope, or a bivy or reflective blanket. Anything to keep you separated from the elements and to prevent hypothermia.



The “Classic” Ten Essentials (Older List):

1. Map

2. Compass

3. Sunglasses and sunscreen

4. Extra clothing

5. Headlamp or flashlight

6. First-aid supplies

7. Fire starter

8. Matches

9. Knife

10. Extra food


The Ten Essentials


There are several skills you should begin to master for a safe and enjoyable backpacking experience. These include but are not limited to: (1) navigation, (2) water treatment and safety, (3) food preparation, (4) building a shelter, (5) starting, maintaining, and putting out a fire, (6) using and maintaining your gear, (7) basic first aid, (8) encountering and dealing with plants and animals, (9) what to do in the event of an emergency, and (10) hygiene in the backcountry.


1. Navigation

Every wilderness traveller should know how to properly use a map and a compass. The unfortunate truth is that many people today can’t find their way across town without a smart phone or a GPS. A GPS is a great tool to have in the wilderness, but like any gear, you should assume that it will fail and you will have to navigate using a compass and a map. These skills are not difficult to master, but require proper instruction and practice. Before going on your first trip, learn how to:


-Use a compass

-Read a topographic map

-Apply compass-to-map navigation

-Apply map-to-compass navigation

-Use baselines and “aiming off” to find your way

-Triangulate your position


Navigating by GPS is a convenient method of traveling in the backcountry. If you choose to use a GPS, make sure you pre-program the unit with your waypoints, campsites, and destination. Know how to use it, and practice using it, several times before you go. As always, check the batteries and have replacements on hand during your trip. Again, DO NOT RELY ON TECHNOLOGY in the backcountry. While a GPS is a convenient tool, you should always assume that it will malfunction or stop working and that you will have to use a compass and map to navigate. Here are some GPS navigation skills to consider learning:


-How to use your GPS and its features

-How to program your GPS

-How to navigate using your GPS on the trail

-Troubleshooting GPS units

-How to properly maintain your GPS

-Limitations of GPS navigation


2. Water treatment and safety

Hydration is a necessity in and out of the backcountry. Dehydration is a real risk when backpacking, and knowing how to stay hydrated, store, and treat water is essential to wilderness travel.


You should always assume that water in the backcountry is contaminated with pathogens. Therefore, you must properly treat the water before using it for cooking or drinking. This applies to people any pets alike, as dogs are susceptible to infection from many pathogens found in wild water sources.


There are several options for backcountry water treatment. These include filters and purifiers, ultraviolet light purifiers, filtering straws and bottles, chemical tablets, and boiling. We find that a squeeze filter works best for most of our adventures. Whatever method you choose, be sure you understand how to use it, and how to properly maintain the gear required for water treatment.


In an emergency or survival situation, you may have to drink unfiltered water to prevent dehydration. However, you should always filter or purify your water if at all possible.


3. Food preparation

You will need to plan, pack in, and prepare all of your meals and snacks for your backpacking trips. Backpacking will require you to consume more calories than you are used to, but rest assured we have never heard of anyone gaining unhealthy weight from backpacking. If you do gain weight, it will be because you have put on muscle, not fat.

You should learn how to plan your meals, pack your food, and prepare it in the wilderness. This includes knowing how to use a backpacking stove or how to cook over a fire (although a backpacking stove is much better than a fire in our opinions). You will also need to bring snacks for eating on the trail. Assume you will be hungry all the time, and plan accordingly.


ALWAYS bring an extra day’s worth of food with you. There are many reasons someone would have to stay an extra day in the backcountry, and chances are you will end up eating all the food you bring.


Look online for resources that help you select and prepare food for backpacking. One of our favorites is REI’s Meal Planning for Backpackers article, which you can access here.


4. Building a shelter

Building a shelter is usually as simple as setting up your tent properly, in a safe location. However, if your tent malfunctions or is destroyed by weather, you will also need to know how to set up a primitive shelter using a tarp, emergency blanket, and/or a sleeping bag. A basic requirement of survival is shelter from the elements, and like all gear, you should assume that your primary means of shelter (tent, hammock, bivy, etc.) will fail and that you will have to improvise.


5. Starting, maintaining, and putting out a fire

Campfires are some of our favorite parts of backpacking. There is simply nothing better than relaxing by a fire in the woods after a long day on the trail. It is the essence of wilderness camping, and you’ll make some great memories sitting around a well-prepared fire in the backcountry.


However, Smoky the Bear will not be looking over your shoulder while you are backpacking. It is your responsibility to know how to start a fire, maintain it safely, and then put it out when you leave. Do not overlook fire safety. Most people find this to be a fun skill to master. Being able to start a fire using different materials and methods is a great way to ensure survival in emergency situations. As always, practice makes perfect. Here are some basic guidelines to help you create safe fires:


-Make sure fires are permitted where you are travelling

-Use ONLY local firewood (using wood from other locations can introduce insects to a forest where they don’t belong).

-Gather only downed wood from the forest floor when making a fire. Don’t cut living trees or plants.

-Don’t burn living plants. Poison ivy and other hazardous foliage can cause serious health risks if burned

-Start fires only in designated areas, grills, or fire rings. Learn how to make a fire ring if you don’t have one already, and if fires are allowed in that area

-Don’t throw trash in fires. You might think it will burn but often it does not, and you will violate your Leave No Trace ethics


6. Using and maintaining your gear

Your gear is useless if you do not know how to use and maintain it properly. You should always know how to use, store, pack, and repair each gear item you bring with you. If you do not know, search the manufacturer’s website, YouTube, or call someone who does know. Your gear can be your best friend in the wilderness, but it will only treat you right if you treat it right.


7. Basic first aid

Bringing a complete first aid kit (checklist in the Plan section) is not sufficient to being prepared for many injuries in the backcountry. Minor injuries in the backcountry are common, and you must know how to deal with them prior to your trip. Major injuries are less common if you are careful, but they do happen. You need to be self-sufficient and prepared to deal with both major and minor injuries by understanding first aid. There are plenty of resources available to learn about first aid. Do some research and learn as much as you can. You can also take a first aid course. At minimum, you should know how to care for yourself and others in your group in the event of an injury. Ideally, you will know how to deal with even the most extreme and unlikely emergency situations. You should also understand the major health concerns for any backpacking adventure, and those that are specific to your destination area. See the Emergencies in the Backcountry section for more information.


8. Encountering and dealing with plants and animals

When travelling in the wilderness, you should remember that you are sharing space with wild plants and animals. Some plants and animals may pose a risk to you, but all wildlife should be respected. One of the main concerns with wild animals is that they can sniff out and steal your food. This is true for many species, but bears are especially skilled at finding and stealing food. Know how to properly store and prepare food with wildlife in mind. Some areas with native bear populations require campers to use special food storage containers or methods (i.e. bear canisters, counterbalancing, etc.). In addition, you should know how to identify the major plant culprits for irritation such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Know what plants and animals are present at your destination, and learn how to deal with them by researching and by calling ahead. Never approach a wild animal, and NEVER eat any plant in the backcountry unless you are positive of what it is. Many poisonous plants look almost identical to edible plants. Pictures or “survival guides” do not suffice: You must know from experience that a certain plant is 100% edible, and even then, it is often not worth the risk.


9. What to do in the event of an emergency

You may backpack your entire life without incident, or you may encounter a serious emergency your first trip. Backpacking is relatively safe if done correctly, but you must be aware that emergencies can and do happen, and it is your responsibility to deal with those events. Do not count on being rescued while in the backcountry. Search and Rescue (SAR) personnel are skilled and dedicated individuals who will do everything they can to save your life when you need them. However, there are a million reasons why SAR would not be able to find you or get to your location. For example, if you or someone in your group slips and falls on wet rock or is struck by lightning, the same conditions that put you in that situation would prevent SAR from reaching you. Always assume you will have to be self-sufficient, and know how to respond to emergencies. The most important thing to remember is to stay calm. See the Emergencies in the Backcountry section for more information.


10. Hygiene in the backcountry

Just because you are out in the woods doesn’t mean you have to smell like a caveman. Proper hygiene in the backcountry is not only good manners for your group members, but it is also an important health and safety consideration. Some basic hygiene considerations include:


-Keeping your hands and fingernails clean

-Properly dispose of human waste and sanitize hands

-Evaluate water sources before bathing in them or acquiring water from them (again, ALWAYS filter or purify water before ingesting it)

-Maintain a clean camp

-Check yourself for ticks and other insects frequently

-Clean off dirt from yourself frequently, and try to stay clean if you can

-Clean and address any open cuts or sores as quickly as possible; don’t ignore injuries or “rub dirt in them”


Don’t ignore hygiene while backpacking. If you’re new, you will likely have a lot of questions. We’ll be happy to answer whatever we can if you choose to contact us. One great book to address what is often the elephant in the room when discussing backpacking trips is Kathleen Meyer’s How to Shit in the Woods – 2nd Edition. We encourage you to check it out and don’t be afraid to ask questions.


Emergencies in the Backcountry


If you have an emergency in the backcountry, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. Use your head, create a plan, and seek help.


Backcountry Health Concerns:



Causes: Skin gets exposed to excessive UV light from the sun. A common problem in the outdoors, during any season, even possible in cloudy conditions.


Prevention: Wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or more. Katie and Mark choose Sawyer Stay Put Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 50. Minimize your exposure to the sun, especially during mid-day. Shade your head, neck, and ears, and check frequently for signs of sunburn. Wear sunglasses that offer UV protection. Wear lip balm with UV protection. Make sure you are not taking medications that increase your risk of sunburn and don’t use facial products that increase your risk of sunburn.


Treatment: If you get burned, use an aloe-based skin cream on the affected areas.  Do not allow those areas to be exposed to sun for the rest of your trip.  If sunburn is serious, or if you experience symptoms such as nausea, chills, or fever, seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.



Causes: Friction rubbing your skin in a particular area causes blisters to form. They are easier to avoid than they are to fix.


Prevention: Wear footwear that fits properly and is broken in.  Wear clean socks that fit properly. Consider wearing two pairs of socks. On the trail, check frequently for signs of discomfort and address them immediately. Know how to us blister prevention and treatment items (which should be in your first aid kit) such as moleskin or 2nd skin. Consider applying moleskin or 2nd skin to your blister-prone areas before you even begin your hike. Be vigilant to the presence of blisters.


Treatment: If a blister becomes too painful, you can drain it using a clean razor blade or knife. Make sure you know exactly how to do this before attempting. We are not going to get into the details here. Once you have lanced the blister, apply antibacterial ointment and cover the area with one of your blister treatment options.


Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Causes: These plants cause irritating reactions when contacted. Some reactions may be more severe than others, and some people are more susceptible to reactions than others.


Prevention: Know how to identify these plants. Just knowing how the leaves look is insufficient, because contact with poison ivy, even when the leaves have fallen off, can still cause irritation.  In general, refrain from touching plants you can’t identify, and stay out of thick brush if it can be avoided. Stick to the trail and don’t burn anything green in your campfire.


Treatment: Apply hydrocortisone cream to the affected area. Clean your clothing and boots to avoid spreading the reaction to other areas of your body or to other people. Consult your first aid manual or a health care provider. If you believe you have a serious medical condition, seek professional attention as soon as possible.


Biting Insects

Causes: Bites from mosquitos, flies, or other insects are common in nature. Insects can carry diseases. Spider bites can be a concern too, but most spiders are harmless.


Prevention: Don’t venture or camp in areas where biting insects are most heavily concentrated. This means avoiding standing water, swamps and bogs, some riverbanks and ponds, etc. Wear appropriate clothing, don’t wear perfume or cologne, or perfumed deodorants, lotions, or lip balms. Use insect repellant if necessary. Treat clothing and gear with permethrin before leaving.


Treatment: If you are allergic to insect bites or stings, consult with your health care provider before leaving to determine what medications you need to bring. Let everyone in your group know about your allergy and what to do if you have an allergic reaction. First aid products that reduce inflammation and irritation are affective treatments against insect bites. If a spider bites you, monitor the bite site and your personal condition. If you expect you have been bitten by a poisonous spider (black widow, brown recluse, etc.), seek medical attention.


Stinging Insects

Causes: Stings from bees, wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. Stings can be dangerous and even life-threatening if you are allergic or if you get stung several times.


Prevention: “If the bush is buzzing, turn the other way”. It seems like common sense, but often you will have to remind people in your group to leave an area quickly if a known hive is around. Try not to wear brightly-colored clothing, shiny jewelry, or perfumes/colognes as these may attract stinging insects.


Treatment: Use first aid items for stings. Remove the stinger (carefully) if it is still in place. Use an oral antihistamine (Benadryl). Epinephrine if you are allergic. If you have an allergic reaction to a stinging insect, seek professional medical attention as soon as possible – some allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Always have physician-recommended medication with you if you know you are allergic, and make sure your group knows that you are allergic and what to do in the event of a reaction.



Causes: Ticks are a common issue in the wilderness. There are many different types of ticks and some transmit diseases such as Lyme disease or tick fever. Ticks get on your clothing or gear from plants, trees, animals, and even the ground, and make their way to your skin where they will seek a blood meal. Ticks transmit disease when they bite and burrow into your skin. They cannot transmit disease by merely touching you.


Prevention: Avoid areas where ticks are most likely to be. These include dense vegetation, certain areas of parks, certain species of trees, tall grass, etc. Consult with local rangers to determine risk of ticks in that area. Check your skin every day, twice a day, for ticks. Pay special attention to areas like your hair, behind your ears, in your armpits, your groin area, and your backside. Ticks will find their way anywhere they can.


Treatment: If you find a tick, you will need to remove it. This can be done using tweezers if the tick has not burrowed into your skin. Always disinfect the area after removing a tick. Check for signs of Lyme disease or tick fever after you know a tick has bitten you. Tell your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any symptoms of these diseases.



Causes: Most snake bites are not deadly, but some can be. Certain species of snakes carry venom, which can cause lethal reactions in humans and other animals. All snakes can transmit infections from biting.


Prevention: Avoid areas where snakes are most prevalent. Consult with a local ranger to identify high-risk areas and mark those on your map and waypoints (see Planning section documents for examples of how Katie and I do this). Tell everyone in your group about snake risk areas and know what species of snakes you may encounter. Talk with experiences wilderness travelers and backpackers about how to avoid snakes and snake bites. Never approach a snake, try to move a snake, or try to kill a snake. If you hear rattling, back away slowly. While some snakes are aggressive, most will only bite if provoked or scared. They are much more scared of you than you are of them. Think about it; if you were a snake and saw a giant walking towards you, you’d bite too. That has to be terrifying.


Treatment: If a snake bites you, stay calm and keep everyone else calm. Do not move the limb where the bite occurred, and do not attempt to apply compression.  Get to a physician as soon as possible. Remember, most snakes are not venomous and most venomous snake bites are not fatal. Be smart and leave the treatment to the professionals. Katie and Mark carry a snake bite kit (recommended in Dr. William Forgey’s Wilderness Medicine) to treat our own snake bites, but keep in mind Katie is a professional health care provider. If you are not a health care provider, it is best to seek medical help without attempting to treat your own injury as your “treatment” may cause additional damage and put you at risk of a more serious condition.


Emergency Situations and How to Avoid Them

(Wilderness Safety, US National Park Service,


Stream Crossings

Drowning or serious injury can occur with improper stream crossing. Find the best crossing point by identifying a wider, shallower area with favorable conditions down stream. Unbuckle your pack straps so you can escape your pack if you fall, and angle your travel across the current. Never tie yourself in while you cross. When in doubt, do not cross.



Hypothermia is known by many as the number one killer in the backcountry. It is caused by the cooling of your body. Do not wear cotton. Instead, wear wool or synthetic layers to prevent hypothermia. Stay dry and do not work yourself into a sweat, as this may cause the cooling of your body. You can get hypothermia in all seasons, not just in winter. Know the symptoms of hypothermia (poor judgment, lethargy, shivering, clumsiness) and be vigilant for these symptoms in your group. Hypothermia can be deadly, and you need to take staying warm and dry seriously to be a backpacker. If hypothermia is expected, prevent further heat loss and rewarm and rehydrate the victim.



You need water to survive, period. Know how to stay hydrated, make sure you are bringing enough water, and know how to acquire and filter more water when needed.



Injuries occur during wilderness travel, even if you are prepared. If this happens to you or someone in your group, you need to know what to do. First, provide whatever treatment you can. We are lucky because Katie is a health care professional, and we’re both trained in first aid. If you are not trained, it is a good idea to become familiar with some basic first aid and injury treatment techniques before embarking on your adventure. At least one person in every group should know first aid and CPR. After applying treatment, seek help. The National Park Service recommends you send for help with the following information:

  • Nature of the emergency: date and time it occurred, details of incident and injuries.

  • Patient condition: airway, breathing and circulation—normal or on the extreme? Has first aid been given? Is CPR in progress?

  • Location: the closest known location, or approximate distance or walking time from a known location. Mark it on your topo map as best you can.

  • Resources: number of people (adult/juvenile) and equipment left at the scene.

  • Patient information: name, address, phone, age, weight, who to notify.

  • Color of injured party's belongings: tent, pack, clothing


Getting Lost

If you become lost, the National Park Service recommends the following protocol: “If you become lost, turn to your Ten Essentials. Stay calm and think through the situation. Stay put—you will be found sooner. Stay warm and dry. If you are tempted to follow a river or creek, remember that these are often the most dangerous routes...Create a signal visible from the air. Lay out brightly-colored clothing in a forest clearing. Use a signal mirror.


To report emergencies, (such as overdue hikers or injuries) dial 911, or the number of the park rangers/park emergency line.


Ask about the location of park ranger stations and know where the closest help is at various points on your route before you go.

Remember to stay calm and assess your situation. The worst thing that can happen in an emergency is creating a worse situation by panicing or acting without thinking.

Emergencies in the Backcountry
Encountering Wildlife



Some of the best moments in the backcountry are rare and fleeting wildlife sightings. That being said, you must be responsible when encountering wildlife. All wildlife is unpredictable and some animals can be dangerous. Be a responsible backpacker and know how to behave when encountering wildlife. As with anything in the backcountry, staying calm and thinking is your best option. The links below will give you a better idea of how to act with regard to wildlife. Be sure to know what types of wildlife live in the areas to which you are travelling. Call ahead to speak with park rangers.


REI Wildlife Encounters Page


NPS Moose Safety


NPS Bear Safety


Using Bear Spray To Deter An Aggressive Bear


NWF Wildlife Safety

Encountering Wildlife
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